By DAN K. THOMASSON
Don’t you just love it?
Before the race for the Democratic presidential nomination was more than a few weeks old, the candidates certified the accuracy of Will Rogers’ remark about not belonging to any organized political party– “I’m a Democrat,” he said. Now with the two leaders of the pack — Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois — having cast the first stones we can all settle back and enjoy — or not — the negative business as usual.
If you’ve paid any attention to the current early presidential birthing process at all, you will understand that the catalyst for the initial incidence of ugliness between candidates were the remarks of Hollywood billionaire David Geffen, who along with his fellow movie moguls has been trying to buy the White House for some time, originally with the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, whom he once loved to the tune of $18 million.
But apparently having had his feelings hurt by Bill Clinton over the then president’s refusal to pardon an inmate whose cause Geffen was championing, Geffen decided to switch his allegiance to Obama this time out. But he did not go gently into the fray. He said some very disparaging things about both the senator and her husband, stimulating instant demands from her camp that Obama give back some $1.8 million Geffen had raised for Obama’s candidacy through a fund- raiser. No soap.
If you haven’t paid any attention, there is still plenty of time to enjoy the carnage. It’s a solid sure thing that the initial skirmishing will develop into full-scale war. How could it be anything else when the cost of winning residency in the presidential mansion is estimated at $1 billion? That’s what the fight is all about, folks, money and a lot of it. Both Obama and Clinton hope to raise a cool $100 million each before the primaries begin early next year. Compare that to the $3 million Bill Clinton was able to raise in the year prior to the 1992 election.
With the two or three viable Democrats siphoning such huge amounts from the donor lists, can any of the others survive very long without financial oxygen? Answering that question was former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who had been hoping his home state would give him a leg up in the all -important caucuses. He simply couldn’t find willing investors to see him through and he became the first in and the first out.
This all becomes a horrible Gothic tale. With such incredible stakes and corrupting amounts, how do we keep the palace on Pennsylvania Avenue and all it is supposed to represent from becoming the House of Usher? Running for president in such an atmosphere of decadence is enough to make the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe wring his hands in glee. So how do we get things back on an even plain? How do we salvage the historically sustaining belief that any American can become president with hard work and luck without having to mortgage it all to the high rollers?
The truth is we probably can’t without returning to the days of power brokers and back rooms and convention deals, which we traded in the name of reform for the primaries, thereby eliminating the chance that common men of high intellect but little wealth will ever again occupy the Oval Office without selling their souls. The hugely escalating costs can be seen in the bloated balance sheets of television, which manages to survive nationally and locally on super injections of election advertising revenue every two years. Public money seemed an answer for a time, but the major candidates are more and more forgoing the controls this imposes and opting for private funding.
The system might still be effective had it not gradually become completely front-loaded with the candidates in both parties emerging from the first three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in January and early February of next year expected to take a commanding lead. The huge amounts have to be raised quickly to sustain the all out push into the crucial states while not completely ignoring a host of other primaries not far behind.
So Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th commandment not to speak ill of fellow party members probably has little or no validity today in the hustle for big bucks. It never really did for the Democrats. But with Geffen and the boys egging things on, it is certain to get worse. It’s time to reform again, perhaps backwards.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)